Tech Companies, Scientists Profit From Surveilling Uyghurs

Since late 2017, widespread media coverage has examined Xinjiang’s role as a “frontline laboratory for surveillance,” which has underpinned the ongoing mass detention campaign in the region. In many cases, American technology and research has helped fuel these developments. Last week, The Washington Post exposed Chinese tech giant Huawei’s “Uyghur Alarms,” facial recognition scans that can notify police upon recognizing Uyghurs. Now, The New York Times’ Raymond Zhong reports that Alibaba and Kingsoft Cloud, two Nasdaq-listed Chinese tech companies, have also created facial recognition software that automatically flags Uyghurs:

Alibaba’s website for its cloud computing business showed how clients could use its software to detect the faces of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities within images and videos, according to pages on the site that were discovered by the surveillance industry publication IPVM and shared with The New York Times. The feature was built into Alibaba software that helps web platforms monitor digital content for material related to terrorism, pornography and other red-flag categories, the website said.

[…] “As government regulation gets stricter by the day, these are tasks that all websites and platforms must urgently handle and manage seriously,” Alibaba’s website explains. The company is China’s leading provider of cloud services and a partner to international companies that have online operations in China.

[…] Another Chinese cloud provider, Kingsoft Cloud, had described on its website technology that could use an image of a face to predict “race,” among other attributes. According to a page and a document on Kingsoft Cloud’s website that were discovered by IPVM and shared with The Times, the company’s software could evaluate whether a person’s race was “Uighur” or “non-Uighur.” [Source]

Many facial recognition technologies employed in Xinjiang are created by teams of international researchers, some of whom are reconsidering the ethics of this work. At Nature, Richard Van Noorden surveyed some of those who are increasingly uncomfortable with their community’s involvement with the persecution of Uyghurs:

In September 2019, four researchers wrote to the publisher Wiley to “respectfully ask” that it immediately retract a scientific paper. The study, published in 2018, had trained algorithms to distinguish faces of Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim minority ethnic group in China, from those of Korean and Tibetan ethnicity.

[…] In the study on Uyghur faces published by Wiley1, the researchers didn’t gather photos from online, but said they took pictures of more than 300 Uyghur, Korean and Tibetan 18–22-year-old students at Dalian Minzu University in northeast China, where some of the scientists worked. Months after the study was published, the authors added a note to say that the students had consented to this. But the researchers’ assertions don’t assuage ethical concerns, says Yves Moreau, a computational biologist at the Catholic University of Leuven. He sent Wiley a request to retract the work last year, together with the Toronto-based advocacy group Tech Inquiry.

It’s unlikely that the students were told enough about the purpose of the research to have given truly informed consent, says Moreau. But even if they did freely consent, he argues, human-rights abuses in Xinjiang mean that Wiley ought to retract the study to avoid giving the work academic credence. [Source]

Huawei’s Danish vice-president of communications resigned this week over similar concerns about surveillance in Xinjiang.

Surveillance is increasingly intense across China. Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at Tsinghua University until he was fired this summer for essays critical of Xi Jinping, is now living under close watch in a small home in western Beijing. At SupChina, Geremie R. Barmé translated an essay by Xu that laid bare both scale of surveillance and the greed that propels it:

My home enjoys a unique privilege as the focus of singular attention. Just outside my door, which opens out onto a fan-shaped area, within a stretch of land roughly the size of a fifty metre semi-circle, they’ve installed nine CCTV cameras. In a variegated array of angles they peer out from different heights and at carefully calibrated distances. Some scan east-west, thereby honing in on my doorway while picking up the oblique angles of my humble abode. Two of the particularly hi-tech cameras come equipped with their own spotlights. At dusk these flicker on automatically and then glower through the night unblinking.

[…] Their Pacify Project goes something like this: the state funds the installation of the surveillance system, it coordinates the rollout and pays for the lot using the hard-earned taxes of the citizenry. The profiteers that take it from there are hi-tech companies that design the eye-spy cameras. Added to that is a host of manufacturers who are involved at every turn point in the chain of production, and that doesn’t include all the managers in charge of teams of workers who actually do the job. Thereby, in this seamless concatenation of plunder, everyone gouges their fill. After all, people say that a procurement process like this allows for a divvying up of tasks done in such a way that allows each echelon of the commercial enterprises and party-state bureaucracies involved to score their particular share of the spoils. After all, hundreds of millions of cameras have been installed throughout the land, in the countryside and the city alike. What a bonanza!

But all of that is only what I’ve heard. Regardless, the real-life outcome of all of these machinations is that you often see dozens of cameras jostling on one single pole, nestling there like a flock of weary raptors. Everyone who has a stake in the process takes their cut, public and private entities feeding off each other, top and bottom in cahoots, each level adding their bit so that we are faced with the present situation. That is to say that everyone, everywhere, year in year out, is now living ‘under foreign eyes’. [Source]


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